“Alienating Language: A Poet’s Masque” argues that many of Emily Dickinson’s late poems, including “Belshazzar had a Letter - ,” “’Secrets’ is a daily word,” and “A little overflowing word,” portray a complex set of desires regarding language and selfhood. In these poems, language does not announce or express subjectivity, but instead communicative actions drain away possibilities for individual expressive agency. The essay looks in detail at the process that led to the inclusion of Dickinson’s “Success is counted sweetest” in the anthology A Masque of Poets, and it uses the details of this story to discuss anxieties about the use of words that were both specific to Dickinson and general to the language system within which she worked. Mischievous verbal acts—holding secrets, spreading opinions, making copies, writing graffiti—form a thread that runs through Dickinson’s late poems. The ways that these poems play upon and play back the sociality of writing and reading makes them both trenchantly critical and utterly typical of their era. The “networked” Dickinson of this essay is an author with diminished control over the production, propagation, distribution, and dispersal of her own language, one whose relations to the circulation of her language cut against the uses of that language, including her own uses of it. But as a result, her poems have social meanings that necessarily exceed their meanings as contained, autonomous, private, or otherwise lyric expressions.


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pp. 75-97
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